Readings: Mark 9:30-37, James 3:13-18, Secrets of Heaven 10225,3,6,7 and 3183 (see below)
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In our text for today, Jesus predicts his death a second time. He’ll soon make a third prediction, and this cycle of threes is an important narrative feature of Mark’s gospel. The predictions follow a typical pattern: Jesus says what will happen to him; the disciples misunderstand somehow, and Jesus corrects them. This misunderstanding of those who are supposed to be “getting it” is a larger theme in the gospel as well. The disciples are constantly not comprehending what Jesus is trying to communicate and from our position as invisible audience, they appear quite dense. So, though I have confessed more than once that the gospel of Mark is my favorite gospel, I do so hope it is because of its brevity, clarity and earthiness, and not because I enjoy these bumbling disciples constantly getting it wrong.
What is different about this second prediction story, is that it mentions how the disciples were afraid to reveal their lack of comprehension, afraid to ask Jesus what he meant. Perhaps this is understandable; Peter had been severely rebuked just a little while before, as we heard about last week. But their continued misunderstanding was having actual consequences in their behavior. They were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Which is just kind of laughable. Have they been listening to Jesus *at all*? But Jesus patiently explains it to them once again. “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
As an illustration, Jesus brings their attention to a child. He doesn’t just point, he tenderly takes the child into his arms and says: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” There is the clear implication that how we understand our relationship to children will have direct consequences to our relationship to God. We don’t know who this child was. They could have been a child of the house owner, they could have been a child of that house owner’s slave. Either way, today we cannot appreciate the shock and surprise it would have caused disciples to hear Jesus say this. Childhood was not valued or romanticized then as it is now. Roman society was sharply ordered and motivated by the honor/shame dynamic. Those who had social capital were constantly trying to protect it and increase it by only associating with those who had equal or greater status. Children had no status and thus no particular value to that general scheme. Jesus wasn’t making a point about maternal or paternal love towards genetic children; of course then, as now, human beings were predisposed towards loving their own. Rather, he uses a child as a symbol of those left out of the value structure, pointing out that entrance into relationship with God’s kingdom depends on welcoming those who are marginalized. The kingdom of God is for all.
Later, in chapter ten, Jesus gets even more pointed. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Jesus preaches this idea in many different ways, with different examples of marginalized people, gentiles, the mentally ill, the disabled. Each time, I think we can learn a different but connected lesson about what welcoming means, about why we might instinctively close ranks in such a human way, about why some people get left behind. In this particular case, we might ponder what Jesus is trying to tell us about the nature of childhood and how that relates to welcoming. Because Jesus is not only or just saying “remember the children”, or even “value the children.” He is saying that *we* must receive the kingdom of God like a little child. Is there something about being childlike that means we are less likely to *allow* people to be left behind, less vulnerable to the distractions and concerns that blind us to the beauty of the whole of God’s creation, and the value of all of God’s people?
In our reading for today, we are introduced to Swedenborg’s explanation of the concepts of the innocence of ignorance and innocence of wisdom. As Swedenborg explains it, there is a certain kind of innocence experienced in very young childhood, an external kind of innocence called the “innocence of ignorance.” I wouldn’t, though, interpret this in any way as a negative state, even though words like “ignorance” and “external” have a somewhat negative connotation at times. Rather, young children are just very present to the world, very open to guidance. They experience things moment to moment, what they feel is what they express. During this time, Swedenborg tells us that young children are surrounded by the very highest angels(1). It is a blessed and beautiful stage of life.
Swedenborg contrasts this stage with another stage called innocence of wisdom. As we emerge from young childhood, we begin to move into a time of intellectual learning. As we know from science, babies and young children have already been learning enormously, their brains are literally being formed, they are like sponges. But at a certain point, we enter into a different kind of learning; we all develop a certain self-consciousness, an ability to self-reflect, a separation of the lower self and higher self. This is a good and appropriate thing and we spend a lot of time in this stage. During this stage learn who we are, what we value, what attracts us, what interests us, what we need to work on, what inspires us, and how we can move toward being a more integral, connected and compassionate person. Over time, the more we learn and grow and change over the years, the more we appreciate how little we know. This appreciation is the true essence of wisdom. It is not a devaluing of knowledge, or a repudiation of knowledge but a change in the way knowledge is held. Think perhaps of the light and gentle grasp we might have upon an egg in our hand, as opposed to the tight grasp required to claim something as our own, hold it tightly to our chest and say “this is mine.” Wisdom values the knowledge it has, and recognizes there is always more to be learned. This essential openness, this habitually real and holy space for the Lord to flow into, this is innocence. More specifically, it is the innocence of wisdom. It is our final destination as angels, and because of this return to innocence, Swedenborg reports that in heaven Highest angels appear at a distance as young children (2).
But how do we get there? How do we find our way into the innocence of wisdom? How do we become more childlike as Jesus suggests? Because certainly, obviously, we cannot go back to our young childhood lives. A world full of toddlers; that’s not a world that anyone wants to live in. But, a more angelic world, a world that is open to newness and wonder the way young children are, a world that values curiosity and sees how God is flowing and makes space for that flow—that sounds like a pretty good world. How do we get there? Well, I am reminded of one of my favorite movies…
…a lovely movie called About Time. It is very sweet, and I highly recommend it. It is a story about a family in which all of the men are time travelers. They can only travel back and forth along their own timeline, so they cannot do grand things like prevent disasters or wars, unless they had actually been there, and since they were simple ordinary folk, they never actually involved in big events. And they also couldn’t travel too far back in their timeline or they risked deleting things that they valued, like their children. So, their skills were most often used for small things, like reading more books, re-living favorite moments, remedying faux pas; once they helped a friend remember lines in a play, once they redid a marriage proposal that they had rather slightly messed up.
And one day, the father tells the son his secret to happiness. He lives each day twice. The first time he just goes about his life in an ordinary way, subject to the same tensions and dissatisfactions that we all are. In one day, his colleague is reprimanded by an unfair boss, and that starts things off badly, then he mechanically buys his lunch; he is late to a meeting and runs frantically; a good outcome from that meeting is overshadowed by his low mood; he comes home exhausted and unable to connect with his family; it seems like it was a bad day.
But then he lives that day again, without changing anything except that he actively looks for the beauty, the gift, the opportunity. So that same day, he pulls faces behind the boss’s back to make his colleague smile, he looks the lunch clerk in the eye and thanks her, sees her smile; he runs, still late, to his meeting but pauses to appreciate the gorgeous building into which he is entering; he relishes his success and takes a moment to really feel it and help others feel it; and so he is energized and alive with his family; instead it was a good day. The same day actually, just with different eyes.
And over time, as his son practices living each day twice, he finds that the way he lives his life is changed. At some point, he doesn’t have to live the day the second time anymore, he automatically sees the beauty while living it the first time. I think this tells us something important about living life with innocence, about how that way of living opens our eyes to the kingdom.
Young children see things that we have forgotten how to see. For some children, every person is a friend and they treat them so, with openness and candor; every person is good and worthy and interesting, before they have been taught about status, tribalism or meritocracy. For some children, the world is a wonder. They cherish every earth-worm and roly-poly and funny-shaped stick, before they have been taught to value what is shiny and popular and disparage that which is dirty and earthy and free.
We are trained into seeing the world through a lens of accomplishment, transaction, and acceptability, and trained out of seeing the world through a lens of possibility, connectedness, and redemption. So, Jesus is constantly imploring us to see the least, last, lost and the left behind, really see them and recognize their worthiness and humanity. Why do the disciples continue to not understand? Why do we? Because they are living in the first day. Living in the structures that tell us not to see, not to believe, not to cherish. Living in that headspace of not enough, we become protective, grasping, distracted. But when we welcome the child, we welcome the second-day kind of living. We welcome seeing in a different way. More importantly, then we will no longer be afraid to relinquish that which feels so necessary; our sense of self-importance and self-consciousness. Fear puts ourselves first because it has to, that’s what fear is for. It will always push for us to ignore or disparage that which disrupts our ways of thinking, threatens our closed safe circles. The disciples chose not to ask Jesus what his death meant for them because they suspected it would up-end what they thought they knew about the world, what they valued about the world. So it would. And they continued to deny and run away, as do we, within our own hearts. But glory be, there was redemption for them as well, there always is, there always will be.
Swedenborg writes: I was allowed to see how much of young childhood was preserved in adult life, and that it was this that gave adult life its essentially human quality. For innocence - the external form of it - is present in a young child, and innocence constitutes that essentially human quality; indeed innocence is so to speak the basic attribute into which love and charity from the Lord can enter (3). May we all find that innocence that makes us human and humane, may we all journey through our days, the one day we get, with wild fascination and gratitude.
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. 33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. 35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” 36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
Secrets of Heaven 10225
 The fact that the first state [of childhood] is a state of ignorance and also of innocence within ignorance is self-evident. While this state exists the inner levels of the mind are being put into shape for the use they will serve, and consequently are not yet opened up. Only the most external levels, those of the senses, are open; and when these alone are open ignorance exists. For a person's understanding and perception of anything at all springs from those inner levels. From this it also becomes clear that the innocence which exists at this time and is called the innocence of young childhood is of a most external nature.
 The last state however is one of wisdom and of innocence within wisdom, which exists when a person is no longer concerned just to gain an understanding of truths and forms of good, but is concerned to make them part of their will and life; for then the person has wisdom. And how far that person is able to make them part of their will and life depends on how much innocence they have, that is, on how far they believe that left to themselves they have no wisdom at all, but that whatever wisdom they have is derived from the Lord, and also on how far they love this to be so.
 From the way in which these states follow one another the person possessing wisdom can also see the marvels of Divine Providence, namely these: An earlier state serves as the basis for those following on continuously; and, the opening up or unclosing of inner levels advances…till at length they have been so opened up that what existed initially on outermost levels - that is to say, ignorance and innocence - also exists finally on inmost levels.
Secrets of Heaven 3183
This final state…is a state of wisdom which has the innocence of earliest childhood within it, and so the first state and the last are united. And when [a person] is old, being so to speak a small child again yet one who is now wise, that person is led into the Lord's kingdom.
Readings: Isaiah 50:5-9, Mark 8:27-37, Philippians 2:5-11, True Christianity 126 (see below)
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Photo by Keenan Constance from Pexels
In our text today, we find the origin of the famous phrase “take up your cross.” Indeed, this would seem to be an ideal extension of what I preached on last week: the necessity of spiritual trial. Jesus calls on us to have the courage to willingly self-sacrifice for the sake of the gospel, to willingly take on the difficulty of a life of faith. An inspiring and poignant sentiment. Which, however, leads us right into a discussion about suffering. How are we to understand suffering? Jesus said he *must* suffer; does that mean suffering is necessary? is it good? is it God’s will? The question of suffering is a complicated, emotional and nuanced topic. We will wrestle with it today and probably not come out with what feels like a definitive answer. But perhaps that is beside the point; in the end, I believe our engagement in the questioning what is important, and is what is holy.
In our story today, Jesus starts off by wondering how people are describing him to others. The disciples report comparisons to old testament prophets, which is understandable; Jesus’ ministry is in that same vein. But he then pivots, and asks the disciples about their own understanding of his identity. Peter’s answer is surprising: the Christ, or the Messiah. This answer was correct; it showed great faith and imagination. Except, that Jesus suspects that Peter is speaking aspirationally, and from his own hope and expectation of what the Messiah should be. We must remember, at this point, the Messiah was understood to be an anointed ruler who would restore Israel to freedom and dominance. Jesus had no intention of acting on such a limited, earthly scale. So he tells Peter not to say anymore, and goes ahead to explain what being the Messiah really means.
And that meant he started talking about suffering. Which was really completely opposite to the messianic ideal. How can a triumphant messiah/king suffer such rejection and pain as Jesus describes and still be triumphant? The disciples minds, and our minds, filled as they are with human concerns, human concepts of power, find it difficult countenance such a contradiction. So Peter objects. But Jesus stands firm. Fleshly, earthly, shallow human concerns, like winning, being right, being strong, being powerful, those are not what he was here for, no matter how superficially righteous our justifications for those goals may be. The power of God kingdom comes from self-sacrifice, from values that are counter-intuitive, inverted, inter-connected, empathic. These kinds of ideas are don’t come naturally to our human egos, so all of humankind shares in the rebuke Peter receives.
And thus we are told to deny ourselves. Deny our pretensions toward power, greatness, reputation. Jesus would suffer a shameful and tortuous death in order to demonstrate that God’s call is to something completely different; the relinquishment of self-centeredness and dominance. When we submit the priority of our self to the kingdom, we make ourselves less so that there is room for more; more love, more understanding, more relationship.
But of course, I've preached this before, as have centuries of Christians before me. Which is part of the problem. Sections of Christian thought has taken this nuanced, deeply counter-intuitive and powerful teaching about selflessness, and used it to preach submission and denial where submission does not belong.
The German theologian Dorothee Soelle begins her book titled “Suffering” with a story about a woman trapped in an abusive marriage. The husband drinks and takes out his own insecurity and disappointment on her, beating her, yelling at her. Yet, in this woman’s context, a small European village some forty years ago, Soelle writes, “…[the] idea that everything that is is the will of God still has deep roots…”(1) The dominant theological construct that undergirds this woman’s inability to get a divorce, is that “all suffering serves either to punish, test or train.”(2) And so, those in power, dominant religious and cultural authorities, direct someone who is powerless to continue in their powerless and suffering state, to deny their God-given sense of what is fair, loving and right, because if God always acts with good reason, who are we to question? To wish to “save their own life” indicates a lack of submission to God. Now to us, this might seem a ridiculous interpretation but believe me, it has been wide spread throughout history and is preached even today in many religious contexts. You can imagine how important such an idea was to the Christian justification of slavery and white supremacy, for example. Those in power have used a theory of Christian masochism, a clear distortion of Jesus’ call toward self-denial, to keep the lowly lowly and the powerful in power. Which of course, is a complete misunderstanding of the notion of Godly self-sacrifice and a complete misunderstanding of God’s relationship to suffering,
Soelle describes Christian masochism thus: “suffering is there to break our pride, demonstrate our powerlessness, exploit our dependency. Affliction has the intention of bringing us back to God who only becomes great when he makes us small.”(3) Essentially, this theory says suffering exists so that we can be taught a lesson about ourselves. It is given to us from God, so that when we are made small in comparison to God, we learn the valuable lesson of self-negation and henceforth look to God for all things. The more we self-deny the more godly our lives will be. Which perhaps can be a valuable lesson to those who need it, but this only for those we are already too proud, powerful and independent. Sending such a painful lesson to someone who is, by nature or circumstances, humble, powerless and dependent is abusive and unnecessary, and that’s not who God is or what God does.
Let’s contrast this with our Swedenborg reading for today: “Spiritual trials lead to a partnership [with God].” This is a very different understanding of the utility of suffering. “During our spiritual trials, we are apparently left completely alone, although in fact we are not alone - at those times God is most intimately present at our deepest level giving us support. Because of that inner presence, when any of us have success in a spiritual trial we form a partnership with God at the deepest level.”(4) This is not an image of comparable smallness and greatness, or a picture of submission and dominance, but rather presence, support, and constancy. So let us dispel some of the misconceptions of Christian masochism:
First of all, God does not *send* us bad experiences. Swedenborg writes: “The Lord does not tempt but liberates…”(5) Suffering exists because we live in an earthly world, filled with flawed human people, where our choices for good or evil must matter to have any meaning. So, suffering happens. The providence, the loving care of God, consists in the fact that God does not let any of our experiences be for nought. Suffering will happen to us at some point, but if we choose for it to be so, then suffering and trial can also be a means for strengthening our partnership with God, uncovering for us truths about the way we see and understand the world, and revealing to us the accessibility of love. That’s what resurrection is, life sprouting up where we thought there could be none.
Secondly, suffering is not a test. It is not something at which we can win or lose. Even Swedenborg couldn’t avoid using “success” language in the quote above, but the overall thrust of the idea is clear: God is intimately present no matter what. If we must use that word, “success” in suffering is not due to our silent endurance of it, but rather, how much have we come to understand and accept our essential belovedness throughout our suffering, even when it seems there is evidence to the contrary. We can’t deny ourselves into acceptability and worthiness to God, make ourselves so small that God will finally be pleased with us. No, God is with us from the get-go, and so therefore suffering is not a test of strength, patience, perseverance or determination, it is an opportunity for a deeper relationship with a God who is already present with us, an opportunity to realize how God is working on our behalf.
Third, just because suffering can be transformed, that does not make it inherently good. Taking up our cross, the denial of the self; many times we find this unpleasant because the human ego is naturally selfish, and the “destablization of the self-referential ego” as Richard Rohr puts it, can indeed propel us forward on our spiritual journeys. But that doesn’t mean that the notion of suffering itself, especially innocent suffering, is necessarily sanctified just because God makes lemonade when life gives us lemons. Soelle makes a bold statement: “only that pain is good which furthers the process of its abolition.” Meaning, in God’s eyes, there is no suffering without an eye towards that suffering’s ultimate end. This is what partnership with God is heading towards. Wholeness, peacefulness, freedom. God does not wish for us to suffer, only that if we must suffer, God will do God’s best to bring opportunity for transformation and relationship out of it.
And if pain and suffering in and of themselves are not good, then when pain and suffering are preventable, whether for ourselves and others, then it is kingdom work to prevent them, whether that means working to abolish systemic injustice, reverse climate change, search for medical cures, wear masks during a pandemic, and much more.
To the extent that pain and suffering takes away our potential for thriving, makes us so small and stuck and alone that we cannot grow and learn and blossom, obscures live-giving truths about ourselves, to this extent that it prevents us from entering into partnership with God and others, then suffering must be vanquished, we must prevent it wherever we can. Suffering is not ordained by God, it is transformed by God, and there is a big difference. The crucifixion was not an infomercial for the efficacy of martyrdom but a statement of hope for a broken world that within our experiences of suffering, no matter how shameful or difficult, God will be there and bring life to us out of darkness.
However, that doesn’t solve the thorny question lurking at the edges of all of this. What suffering is preventable and what is not? What suffering is productive and what is not? I’m not sure that is a line we can ever establish, ever draw with any complete certainty. What I do know that is our partnership with God demands that we continue to stretch our arms out over the world, using all our best intentions and capabilities to prevent suffering because that’s what love would have us do. And some suffering will not be preventable or foreseeable by us and we must forgive ourselves for that. But neither can we stop striving to bring comfort, freedom and peace for the world. In all of it, even in the tension and the uncertainty, we know that God is present and working for a closer relationship with us. Where chance and circumstance meet freedom and human decision; in this chaotic and uncertain space God stands waiting, ever-present and ever-loving. We take up our cross, we surrender to relationship, but we do not submit, for God would not have us be small, God would rather have us be ourselves.
(1) Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Fortress Press, 1975), page 11.
(2) Ibid, 25
(3) Ibid, 19
(4) Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #126
(5) Emanuel Swedenborg, The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine #200 (a summary of Secrets of Heaven #2768).
5 The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away. 6 I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. 7 Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. 8 He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! 9 It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me. Who will condemn me? They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” 28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” 30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. 31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…
True Christianity 126
…The union itself [between the Lord's divine and human natures] was completed by the suffering on the cross, because this suffering was the final spiritual test that the Lord went through in the world. Spiritual tests lead to a partnership [with God]. During our spiritual tests, we are apparently left completely alone, although in fact we are not alone - at those times God is most intimately present at our deepest level giving us support. Because of that inner presence, when any of us have success in a spiritual test we form a partnership with God at the deepest level. In the Lord's case, he was then united to God, his Father, at the deepest level.
Readings: Mark 7:24-37, Secrets of Heaven 1690:2-3, 1692 (see below)
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The two places that we hear about in our reading today, Tyre and Sidon, are by the sea. Perhaps this summer, some of us took vacations, if we were able to safely, by the sea, or a lake. These are places, at least in our culture, synonymous with letting go of our routines and our anxieties, and reveling in the simple joys of our earth: sun, sand, water. Jesus was also trying to get away from the everyday. Perhaps more important than being by the sea, was the fact that Tyre and Sidon were beyond the boundaries of Herod’s kingdom, who was one of Jesus’ main adversaries. The path Jesus had taken was a difficult and exhausting one. He needed a break. So we are told: “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it.” Just a moment to himself.
But it wasn’t to be. A Syro-Phoenician woman, meaning a Canaanite, a gentile, comes to beg him for a healing for her daughter. Jesus does not respond well. He essentially calls her a dog. The greek word is diminutive, but not in a cute way, in a condescending way. The Jews of the day *hated* dogs, and had done so for centuries. As far as they were concerned, dogs were unclean scavengers, not the beloved friends that we now carry around in purses and feed organic food and let sleep in our beds. There is no getting around this insult. Yet, instead of crumbling, as many of us might do, the woman stands her ground, and delivers a pithy argument in Jesus’ own style, just as he had previously bested others. Jesus is shocked into changing his tune, and he heals her daughter from afar.
So, welcome back everyone, we are starting off with a bang this fall, with a difficult and controversial gospel story. Why difficult and controversial? Well, how did this story make you feel this morning? How did it make you feel to hear Jesus being so insulting to someone who simply came for his help. Let’s be honest, Jesus doesn’t mince words when rebuking the religious and political elite of his time; certainly he has said worse to them and we cheer him on. But rarely does he speak so to those who come to him for help in faith. In those cases, we are used to the compassionate and giving Jesus, not the testy and bigoted Jesus. What are we to do with *this* Jesus that we have been given on our text today? This Jesus likely makes us extremely uncomfortable.
So, many times preachers will try to figure out how to make Jesus look good here. He is just testing her, they might say, trying to strengthen and purify her faith. In Matthew’s version, the disciples get involved, perhaps he is trying to teach them a lesson too. But these “tough love” interpretations do not sit right with me. Out of love for her child, this woman sought out a leader of a different faith and people, crossing religious, cultural and gender boundaries to approach him. This woman’s faith was already strong, her discernment on point, her courage on display. She didn’t need to learn anything. Perhaps, just perhaps, *she* was supposed to teach Jesus something.
In Swedenborgian incarnational theology, we understand Jesus to have both a human and divine nature. He was human just as we are human, but his soul was divine. Now, the upshot of this view is that Jesus *felt* just as human as we all feel. Sometimes he was in sync with his divine nature and sometimes he was not, just we are are sometimes able to feel a distinct connection with our soul-natures, and though most of the time we are truly mired in our earthy humanness.
When Jesus was fully in his human nature, he would often speak of God the Father, essentially his own divine soul, as separate. These were the times that Jesus was vulnerable to temptation, just as we are. Now when we think of the temptations of Jesus in the gospel, we tend to think of the big ticket ones: Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness, and of course, the cross. But in reality, Jesus was tempted all the time, by big things and small, just like any human being. And it is my opinion, that is story is one of those small times. Jesus was exhausted, and depleted. I know that I myself, when I am exhausted and depleted, I am not my best self either. Who of us, after being interrupted for the umpteenth time when we just wanted some peace, hasn’t whirled around and said “What???”
This is our humanness on display, our concern for our own well-being yes, but also our own fear about not being in control, not trusting God’s abundance in the moment, not being willing or able to summon compassion. It is easy to be compassionate when everything is going right, when we’ve had our coffee, we’re within our tribe and within our comfort zone. It is much harder to summon compassion when we are feeling challenged and off-balance.
It’s also important to remember, however, that in this gospel story, Jesus was not being, in the words of Rev. Wilda Gafney “generically human.”(1) Most of the time we are quite willing to concede the *generic* humanness of Jesus because then we don’t have to think about what that really means. But Jesus wasn’t a generic human, Jesus was an actual human, an actual human being in his own place and time, subject to the physical and cultural heredity of his context. And so that means, that his temptations were sometimes also according to the cultural heredity of his context. And in his context, Jews did not like Canaanites and the feeling was absolutely mutual. To the Jews, Canaanites were lowly idolators. To the Canaanites, the Jews were their once-upon-a-time conquerers and occupiers, just as Rome and others had later conquered Israel. There was a centuries-old tension. By religious and cultural training, Jesus was biased against this woman. He did not want to squander his precious energy on her. Now, by this point in his ministry, Jesus surely knew such biases did not serve the kingdom. Jesus’s words in the gospel of Mark’s parables paint a picture of an expansive, wild and generous kingdom, one not necessarily received by those you would expect. Jesus had even healed a demon-possessed gentile two chapters earlier and sent him to spread the word of the gospel to his people. But biases run deep, and in a moment of weakness and likely, self-preservation, Jesus spoke from that bias.
And I know that makes me feel pretty uncomfortable, and a little disappointed. But, when I think about it, the disappointment comes only because I have forgotten what temptation really is, and what temptation is for. Temptation and spiritual trials are not for the purpose of demonstrating that we are pure, perfect and righteous. Temptation serves the purpose of bringing to light that which stands in the way of our regeneration, revealing to us the work that we still need to do. Let us take Jesus’ wilderness temptations from Matthew as an example. Satan dares Jesus to turn stones to bread, to throw himself off a cliff, and offers Jesus rulership of the world if only he would worship him. Jesus’ answers are so smooth and immediate that we forget that for the temptation to mean anything, a small part of Jesus had to have *wanted* to show off his power, and wanted to rule the earth. For the temptation of the cross to mean anything, then Jesus had to have been afraid to die, had to have been anxious that his actions might be in vain, had to want to give up. We don’t hear his struggle in the wilderness with Satan, but we do hear it in Gethsemane and on the cross. And we hear it in his words to the Syro-Phoenician woman. This is okay. That’s what makes these stories of temptation so powerful. When Jesus was born into a human body, and a human nature, even with a divine soul, his actions were not pre-determined. They were choices.
Those choices propelled Jesus towards glorification, the union of that which is human with that which is divine, and this journey mirrors our own. We too journey, inch by inch, day by day, towards the union of our human nature with our soul-nature, the alignment of our action with the divine love that animates our being. In the words of Karoline Lewis: “We forget that our God became fully human not *only* for the sake of solidarity with the joys and pains of humanity, but also for the sake of telling us the truth about our humanity – which always attempts to curtail God’s sovereignty.”(2)
We see Jesus’ humanity curtailing God’s sovereignty in our text today. It might make us uncomfortable to see Jesus so human but the gospel tells us the truth; sometimes our humanness is ugly. But what is illustrative here is not that Jesus was biased, but how quickly he was willing to be turned around. We know he had long been doing spiritual work, expanding the hearts and minds of the people around him as well as his own. He had a moment of weakness, a moment dwelling in dark human feelings, in a prejudice he had been marinating in since birth. But the woman’s wit and persistence reminded him of how he was limiting her in his mind, and his response was not of bluster, defensiveness, or excuse. His response was to return to what he knew was right with no fanfare and no hesitation, and to heal the person who needed to be healed.
This story is ultimately a hopeful one because it depicts what is possible. None of us will likely be offered a chance to rule the world by Satan, or thankfully, have to choose to be martyred. But we will all get a chance, many chances indeed, to enact this episode. We will many times in our lives find ourselves smack in the middle of our biases, drawing a line between ourselves and an “other” and doing so in a way that diminishes and belittles them. Instead, may we open our awareness to what we are doing, may we open our eyes to the humanity of the person in front of us, may we quietly, faithfully, let go of that which closes us off to another, and may we choose to be a channel of healing.
It probably won’t surprise us to note that right before this story, Jesus had been challenging the purity codes of the religious elite, specifically ceremonial washing. It caused him to say: “Listen to me everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of the person that defiles them.” And in our text today, Jesus himself became the parable by which this idea was brought to fullness. The Syro-Phoenician women’s external, outside context defiled her in Jesus’ eyes, made her less worthy than his fellow Jews. But her words humanized her to him, and reminded Jesus of his own words and this own ethos. Jesus’ eyes and ears were opened, just as for the next man he would encounter. The faith being purified was not hers but his. The miracle was not only an healing of a child, but the “overcoming of prejudice and boundaries that separate [people].”(3)
3. The New Interpreter’s Bible, page 461